In this talk, Jon Lange explains the history leading up to the Chinese revolution of 1949, and the lessons that communists can learn from one of the greatest events in human history. To learn a more detailed history of China from a Marxist perspective, see our book China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution.
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The Chinese revolution of 1949 was the second greatest event in world history so far. The revolution smashed capitalism and landlordism in the world’s largest country. It replaced the decrepit Chinese capitalist state with a worker’s state, albeit a deeply deformed one. It was a monumental step forward. Millions of human beings – who had lived desperate lives of toil, working away to enrich the capitalists that at home and abroad – stood up, threw off the yoke of imperialism.
And for these reasons, I think the Chinese revolution has a tremendous power to inspire workers and young people who are looking for their own way out of this capitalist nightmare. And I say that from experience. When I first got involved in the broader socialist movement, I found the first 50 years of the Chinese Communist Party’s history absolutely electrifying.
The heroism and determination of the guerrilla struggle, the color and liveliness of the propaganda posters, the concise poetry of the slogans, all of that was incredibly attractive to me. And I think it’s attractive to a lot of other people. So it’s absolutely essential for every communist to understand this revolution and to integrate its lessons into our vital political work: Building a mass Communist Party and a new Communist international.
But the Chinese Revolution presents certain theoretical problems for us. This revolution did not proceed along the lines of a classical bourgeois revolution, like the English revolution of 1640-1660, or the French Revolution of 1789. At the same time, it didn’t follow the pattern set by the world’s most successful proletarian revolution.
The revolution we talked about yesterday, the Russian Revolution of 1917. And I think the Chinese Revolution departed from the classical formula of a proletarian revolution in two major ways. Firstly, it’s not the fact that the Chinese working class got increasingly well-organized in the course of its struggle against the capitalists, so much so that it could launch a wave of strikes and mass demonstrations, general strikes, uprisings, eventually an insurrection.
Now, in point of fact, the class struggle in China’s industrial centers was developing along that path in the 1940s, but it never got to the end of it. It never got to the stage of open insurrection. And for that reason, the Chinese working class was not the decisive factor in the revolution. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP, came into power when its army, the People’s Liberation Army, won a Civil war, and that civil war, until its final phase took place almost entirely in the countryside.
The second way that the Chinese Revolution departs from what we expect of a proletarian revolution is that history has shown us in both a positive and negative way that the working class can only take power when its most advanced elements – what we call the vanguard of the working class are organized into a Communist Party, and this party has got to be more far sighted, have have firmer thought, more revolutionary determination than any other type of political party. And to achieve this, its cadres have got to be steeled in Marxist theory. They’ve got to possess clear perspectives and they’ve got to have a revolutionary program behind which the working class masses can unite. Now, the Communist Party of China was founded to be exactly that type of party.
But by 1949, it had long since ceased to be a worker’s party in composition. And despite its official declarations, it had long ceased to be a party that was behind the ideas of genuine Marxist Leninism. So we’re dealing with a peculiar phenomenon here. So the CCP was founded in 1921 in Shanghai at a Congress of about 12 delegates, and these delegates represented no more than 60 communists throughout the vast country.
And so the Chinese Communist Party, when it was founded significantly smaller than the number of people in this room, but it had big goals. The stated goals were to overthrow the power of the capitalist class and to eradicate capitalism and private ownership of property in China. And one of the main political discussions they had at this Congress was: what is the nature of the Chinese revolution that we know is coming around the corner?
And within four short years of that founding Congress and that discussion, the party was thrown into the turmoil of that very revolution. And the revolution which passed between 1925 and 1927, was first and foremost an uprising against imperialism. Now, China had been a society in crisis for the previous 85 years, ever since the British imperialists had opened up the Chinese market by force during the Opium Wars, the first of which began in 1839.
Capitalism was not introduced to China by internal forces within Chinese society. It was the imperialists who brought China kicking and screaming into the capitalist world. And the Chinese peasants rose up against this almost immediately in the Taiping rebellion of the 1850s and sixties. But they were not successful.
And the imperialists made mindblowing profits exploiting the labor of the vast country. But unlike a lot of places in the world, China is a huge country and the imperialist couldn’t conquer and colonize China directly. Instead, Britain, France, the United States and other imperialist powers, they divided up the country. They took control of strategically important cities and sections of cities, and they enforced their rule in the rest of the country indirectly.
And at first, they did this through the intermediation of the old pre-capitalist Chinese ruling class. But of course, the development of capitalism in China changed the class structure of the country. And the most important development in the class structure of the country was the development of a working class. And this was a new class in Chinese society that was formed out of the raw material of peasants who had been forced off the land because they were too indebted to the greedy landlords and moneylenders.
And alongside them you had urban and village artisans whose small scale production methods couldn’t compete with cheap manufacture that was imported from the imperialist countries. But the ruling class in the process of this development changed as well. It’s very important to note that the new Chinese capitalist class that developed- they built up their wealth and power by acting as the local agents of the imperialist bourgeoisie.
And one of the major mistakes that that the CCP leaders made during the 1925 revolution was imagining that this domestic Chinese capitalist class, or at least a significant section of it, would not only join the workers and peasants in their struggle against imperialism, but would actually lead that struggle. And this was not to be the case. It was not to be the case in 1925 to 27.
And it wasn’t the case in 1949. Now, when this revolution broke out in 1925, there were really only two political parties of any significance in China. There was the Communist Party, which had been very small, as I say, but in the course of the struggle actually grew to at least something like 60,000 members. And that’s an important lesson for us.
A revolutionary party is never built through calm and gradual accumulation. The growth of a revolutionary party is conditioned by the rhythm of the class struggle and the pace of development of class consciousness. And in periods when the struggle is particularly intense. Consciousness can change rapidly and the party can experience explosive growth. And that’s exactly what happened to the CCP.
And this CCP, it was a real Workers Party. Most of those 60,000 members were urban proletarians. Now we know studying history that in a lot of countries, the trade unions at a certain stage in the development of the class struggle will found a worker’s party. But in China, it was actually exactly the opposite. The Chinese Communist Party founded the unions in China, and these unions very quickly became mass organizations and they provided much of the leadership of the revolution of 1925 to 27.
But there was another political party in China called the Guomindang. It’s sometimes known as the KMT after its initials, or the Chinese Nationalist Party, which is a rough English translation. And this was a bourgeois party founded in the 1890s by liberal Chinese intellectuals. And they were really responding to the fact that the traditional Chinese state was not well suited to the problems presented by the development of capitalism.
And their initial vision for China was they wanted a kind of democratic republic like the kind that they saw in Western Europe or in the United States. And they saw this kind of republic as the key to uniting the whole Chinese nation, the whole of Chinese society against the imperialists, kicking them out and transforming China into a truly independent capitalist power.
And they had their chance to do this. There was another revolution in 1911, the so-called Shanghai Revolution. And this revolution succeeded in overthrowing the last emperor of China and really putting the final nail in the coffin of the traditional political system, which had ruled the country more or less continuously since 221 B.C.. But far from uniting the country, it actually divided the country further.
Instead of a stable, democratic republic, what you had was, warlords controlling various parts of the country and the imperialists still controlled strategically important industrial centers. And the KMT and its army- they controlled part of part of the country, too, but they ended up spending more time fighting the warlords than they did fighting the imperialists.
So if you’re a Chinese communist, there’s this other party there. And, a big question for you is how do we relate to this other party that exists in society? And really, this question can only be answered by first answering a deeper question, which is what is the nature of this Chinese revolution that we are living through?
And now a party that is only four years old can’t necessarily be expected to develop a good answer to that question. This is a young party. It’s a largely inexperienced party. But luckily there existed the communist international and a communist international should be able to help a young party to patiently explain the ideas and methods of Marxism and help them understand the nature of the processes that are going on in their society so they can develop the correct strategy and tactics.
But unfortunately, this is not what happened in in China. The Russian Revolution itself was in the process of bureaucratic degeneration and the representatives of the Russian bureaucracy who were also consolidating their control in the Communist international – particularly Stalin and Bukharin – they urged the CCP and in fact more or less ordered the CCP to take a fundamentally revisionist and counterrevolutionary line.
Now, when we say revisionist, what we mean by this is- they called themselves Marxist, they said: “we’re the Marxists.” But the ideas that they actually put forward were the diametrical opposite to Marxism. And they said, look, China is a backwards country, deeply backwards country. And its working class is small. It’s not going to be ready for socialism for some time.
And therefore, it’s not the role of the communist Party to lead the Chinese revolution. It’s the role of the bourgeois party, the Kuomintang, to lead the Chinese revolution and the role of the Communist is to support and encourage the Kuomintang in its task. And they even ended up arguing that the Kuomintang was not a bourgeois party at all.
What they said is the Kuomintang is really a party of four classes, right? You got the peasants, you got the workers, you got the petty bourgeoisie – these kind of intermediate class. They’re not working class, but they’re not really big, big capitalists – and the so-called national bourgeoisie. And this was the largely fantastical notion that there was a significant section of the Chinese capitalist who was not so deeply tied to the imperialists and that they would actually fight the imperialists.
And the idea that you can have a party of four classes, that’s nonsense, of course, right? You can have a party with individual members who come from four different classes. Of course you can. But when you are dealing with classes that have fundamentally opposed interests, they have fundamentally opposed needs and desires, then a single party can only really represent one of those classes.
But based on this for class absurdity, they even argued for dissolving the Chinese Communist Party, into the Kuomintang. They even made the main leader of the KMT at the time – Chiang Kai-shek – they made him an honorary member of the Comintern Executive Committee. And the dissolution of the of the CCP into the KMT was the exact opposite of the advice that Lenin had given to Communists in the colonial and Semi-Colonial countries in 1920.
This is the advice that he gave communists in these countries. He said: “Communists must not merge with the bourgeois democracy and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement, even in its most embryonic form.” But of course, the working class is not going to wait around for the Chinese Communist Party to develop the correct political strategy and tactics.
Indeed, in cities, all over China, even without firm Marxist leadership, strikes were becoming general strikes. Economic demands were being transformed into political demands. In many cities the strikers would actually raid police headquarters. They’d take the weapons so that they could confront the class enemy with arms in hand. And what was the response of the Communist Party to these developments?
Take a second and imagine what your response would be? As communists, if this happened in this country and then think about what the Communist Party did. They told the workers: the first thing you must not do is take power into your own hands. They even- what they said was, we’ve got to wait for the Kuomintang to show up.
Right. They are the ones who are going to lead our revolution. And so, imagine yourself back in the cities where you come from and the workers have raided the police stations. They got their arms. They’re all out on a general strike. And you say, hey, you got to wait, the Democrats, they’re going to lead our revolution.
So obviously, this was not a good policy. They even argued for the workers to disarm themselves because they said, look, the KMT is going to come, their army is going to come. And if you’re standing here with arms, they’re going to think you want to fight them and not accept their political leadership. So you got to disarm yourself.
And of course, what happened whenever the KMT forces arrived in town, the first thing they did was break the strikes. And this is a way that they were not representing four classes. Right? There was supposed to be a four class party. You’ve got the capitalists. They want the workers to go back to work.
You got the workers. They’re on strike. Is the KMT going to represent both these classes? No, they represent the capitalist class. They broke the strikes, they killed strikers, they killed communists. They even killed non-communists, who they thought were communists. And this all culminated in the Shanghai massacre on April 12, 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek ordered his troops to slaughter up to 10,000 communists and labor militants and even left wing members of his own nationalist party in Shanghai.
And this is another important lesson for us. We were sitting here in the in the reasonably comfortable theater, and we’re talking about Marxism and revisionism. And maybe some comrades are sitting out there thinking does it really matter all this? But all that much? Is this just a lot of hairsplitting? But in the revolution, the question of whether we’re guided by Marxist theory or whether we’re guided by the reactionary doctrines of revisionism is a matter of life and death for individual comrades and for the revolution itself.
Now, Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese capitalists and their imperialist masters must have been pretty pleased with themselves. They had drowned the Chinese revolution in blood. But simply killing your political enemies doesn’t actually solve the fundamental problems – social and economic, which caused revolutions in the first place. And so the struggle continues. Now in the wake of the massacre and subsequent defeats in 1928, most of the remaining communists fled to the countryside.
Now, this move was not a tactic worked out in advance? This was an improvization. And even up to the year 1935, the official line of the Communist Party was that this was a temporary move. The official line was still, we’re going to go back to the cities one day and organize the vanguard of the working class.
But things turned out very differently. The move to the countryside ended up fundamentally changing the class composition of the party. It went from a party primarily of workers to a party primarily of peasants, because the 1930s were a difficult time for the CCP. In 1934, the party was actually on the verge of annihilation by the KMT army and the Communists at that time – they had to flee their initial bases in southern China to new bases in the north during the famous and brutal long March.
And the long march, it took about a year and 90% of the party members died on this march and the long march greatly accelerated the changing class composition of the party. And the reason why it changed that, that composition very rapidly is another kind of lesson for us all. If 90% of your comrades die, you’ve got some serious recruiting to do.
And now if you’re in the countryside, who are you going to be recruiting? You’re going to be recruiting urban workers? No, you’re going to be recruiting from the peasantry. And some people may say: Okay, China, it’s a it’s a majority peasant society. Maybe it makes more sense to organize the peasantry – after all, peasants are exploited and oppressed under capitalism, just like workers are.
What does it matter whether we organize a party of workers or a party of peasants? Well, it’s a huge difference. Because the political potential of a class, the historical trajectory of a class, is rooted in the conditions under which it lives and works. And workers and peasants are both exploited, but the conditions of their exploitation are very different.
Workers toil away in big workplaces alongside hundreds, thousands, in some cases even tens of thousands of fellow workers. And a lot of workers, they start out trying to use individual means to improve their lives. I was talking to a comrade out front before the session. One of one of the things he mentioned was when he first started working, he was trying to use individual means to get ahead.
But eventually, like this comrade outside, workers learn the power that they really have, and the power that they really have is their size, their concentration, and the fact that they play this crucial role in production. And they eventually learn that collective struggle is the key to liberation. But the unit of production for the peasant is usually always the family.
And as a result, peasants rarely develop the kind of collective consciousness that workers can. Now that doesn’t mean the peasants will never unite and fight, but ultimately the peasantry, like all intermediate classes standing between the workers and the capitalists, is not really capable of developing an independent class line. It will always be led politically by one or other of the main classes in society.
Marx summed this up very succinctly and he was talking about the Taiping Rebellion, the first uprising against imperialism in China. And what he said was: “Eastern empires always show an unchanging social infrastructure coupled with an unceasing change in the persons and tribes who manage to ascribe themselves to the political superstructure.” What did he mean by this? What he meant is that the faces at the top can change and change and change and change, but they’re never able to change the fundamental way society organizes itself.
As Marx said, “The peasant rebels are not conscious of any task except the change of dynasty. They have no germ of a new social formation.” So if you look at China, long history of peasant revolts going back at least to the third century B.C. and many of these were successful in overthrowing a dynasty. But what happened then? Were the peasants able to organize a new type of society?
No. A particularly lucky and skilled military commander just declared himself to be the new emperor. Nothing really changed. China’s probably home to the majority of successful peasant uprisings in human history. The country is very, very well suited to peasant revolt, for reasons that there’s really not time to get into. But if you study failed peasant revolutions anywhere in the world, you often find them following a similar pattern.
The peasants will rise up either in the wintertime or the summertime, and they form a powerful army and they fight against the landlords and they do really, really, really well until it becomes springtime or autumn. Then each individual peasant says to themselves: “Whoa, I got to go tend to my fields. It’s time to sow or to reap, depending on what the season is. And if I don’t do it, this is not going to be a very good year for me and my family.” And most all of the peasants think this way and the army just kind of melts away. And the most stubborn elements who don’t melt away, they get slaughtered. And you don’t see that kind of thing in a proletarian revolution.
In the middle of the workers insurrection when it happens in this country, you’re not going to have workers looking at the time and saying: “My shift starts in 20 minutes. I’ve got to get to work or else they’re going to dock my pay.” And saying all that about the nature of peasant consciousness and peasant struggle, that doesn’t mean that the struggle between peasants and landlords isn’t an important one.
It’s simply the case that the peasantry cannot carry through a revolution against the landlords based purely on its own forces. It requires not only an alliance, but it requires the leadership of one of the urban classes. And that’s a very important factor. Trotsky said of this: “The historical mission of the proletariat grows to a considerable extent precisely out of the inability of the peasantry to liberate itself by means of its own forces.”
And of course a revolution in the countryside to seize the land and distribute it to the peasants – that cannot take place without the active participation of the peasants, without peasant committees, without the peasants arming themselves. But ultimately, if you look at the whole history of capitalism, the development of capitalism, it’s a history of the countryside being politically and economically and socially and culturally subordinated to the cities – the cities exercising increasing power and control of the countryside.
And that means that the question of the agrarian revolution, the question of whether the peasants get land or not, is ultimately not going to be settled in the countryside. It’s going to be settled in the cities. And that was true even in the Chinese revolution of 1949. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but I’ll tell you that the Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army, they struck blows against the landlords to various extents at various times in the Civil War.
But landlordism was not decisively smashed in China until the army entered the cities. It was in the cities that the question was decided. And of course the Marxists said this all along because we understood that that was the consequence of the way capitalism developed. So in the 1930s, the CCP becomes primarily a peasant party and such a dramatic change is going to have to express itself in a corresponding change of leadership.
Now, I imagine I’ve been up here 25-30 minutes or something and you may notice that there’s a name I haven’t mentioned: Mao Zedong. And I must stress to you all that this is not an error on my part. I totally meant to do that. And the reason why I meant to do that is because Mao as an individual was not that important, right?
He was primarily an accidental figure. The significance of Mao historically is that he emerged as the representative of this change in the class composition of the party. And so during the long March and in January of 1935, the poor or the Workers and Peasants Red Army, as it was called at that time, seized this little town called Zunyi, and they had a conference there and a new leadership team led by Mao deposed the old leadership around Wang Ming.
And this is an absolutely fascinating event, but unfortunately time does not really allow me to go into it. The fact of the matter is that the long march was really a long retreat from the onslaught of the KMT, and even after the march, the CCP was really on the ropes and Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT might have delivered a knockout blow except for a little matter called the Second World War.
When the Japanese invaded China, Stalin and Mao saw this as an ideal time to try again to get an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT, and through them to secure an alliance with the mythical national bourgeoisie. Indeed, in response to the war, the Chinese Communist Party took an even more opportunist line than they had in the 1920s, as Mao explained: “Pursuing its zigzag course, the Chinese revolution has again arrived at a united front of the four classes.
But the scope of this united front is now much broader because its upper stratum includes many members of the ruling classes. Its middle stratum includes the national bourgeoisie, the and petty bourgeoisie, and its lower stratum includes the entire proletariat, so that the various classes and strata of the nation have become members of the alliance resolutely resisting Japanese imperialism.”
Now, that last bit about Japanese imperialism was really wishful thinking. The KMT wasn’t particularly interested in fighting the Japanese. At the beginning of the war, Chiang Kai-shek actually said: we will fight the Japanese, but only after we have destroyed the communists. Destroying the communists is absolutely essential precondition for fighting against the Japanese.
Now, in spite of all this, the CCP was able to secure an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, and they did so at gunpoint during a very interesting thing of the Xi’an incident in 1936. And the whole affair is really fascinating. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into it. But basically what happened was that the Communist Party threw a set of very curious chances, managed to capture Chiang Kai-shek.
And it’s interesting to note, in the 1920s, Trotsky tried to give a lot of advice to the Chinese communists in opposition to what Stalin and the Stalinists were saying. And one of the pieces that he had of advice that he gave in the twenties was that he said that the Communist Party of China should shoot any KMT general who opposed Soviet power.
And Chiang Kai-shek had actually made himself a generalissimo. He’d promoted himself to generalissimo after the Shanghai massacre. But instead of putting him up against the nearest wall, they offered to form what they called a united front, and they offered lots of concessions. Even going so far as to let KMT generals command Communist forces. Interestingly, one of the concessions they made to show that they were really serious class collaborationist was to strip a lot of the class terms out of their organization.
So as I said, the PLA was originally called the Workers and Peasants Red Army, but it becomes the People’s Liberation Army. They had also been calling their rural bases Soviets. Now they weren’t Soviets in the sense of being workers or peasants or soldiers councils, but they called these areas Soviets because of the weight that that term had in the international working class movement.
They dropped that. This is why the country ends up being called the People’s Republic of China, not the Chinese Soviet Socialist Republic or something like that. And Chiang Kai-shek, he changed his position, despite having shown himself to be an anti-communist of the most murderous, he decided, apparently that a united front with the communists was superior to a bullet in the back of the head.
But an ally won over in this way, rather than solid political arguments, is never going to be the most reliable one. And the fact of the matter is that they let Chiang go. He still didn’t do very much to fight the Japanese. The KMT gave battle against the Japanese only very rarely, and usually the reason why they would get into a battle with the Japanese was for political reasons.
People would be criticizing them saying: You never fight the Japanese, you never fight the Japanese. So every once in a while they had to they had to fight the Japanese. Say: “See, we don’t always retreat.” And the Battle of Shanghai is a great example in 1937. The KMT had been retreating and retreating and retreating over vast, vast territory.
And it was not a politically good look to surrender Shanghai without a fight. And so they fought. And it was an absolutely horrific battle. It was a Stalingrad scale battle, and the KMT got absolutely slaughtered. And the Second World War was the real impetus that allowed the Chinese Communist Party to take power. It was the political sympathy and the political authority that they won simply by being the only force in China which was willing to fight the invader.
They didn’t actually do that well militarily when they fought. And if the Communist Party had actually tried to use some proletarian methods of struggle, if, for example, when the Japanese imperialists invaded, they decided that we’re going to start organizing the workers in all the industrial cities and we’re going to work towards a national general strike against the occupation – that might have been very effective.
But the means they used against the Japanese were not particularly effective. The Japanese didn’t lose the Second World War because of the resistance of the Chinese Communist Party, heroic as it was. But the main thing is that they fought. And conversely, the KMT lost support because of their cowardice in the face of the enemy.
And despite the so-called United Front, the KMT clashed with the Communists during the war. Chiang was still more willing to fight against the Communists than he was to fight against the Japanese. But things between two parties really came to a head after the Second World War, when the Civil War resumed. And it’s important to note that it’s not the Communists who started the Civil War again.
The CCP leaders and Mao. What they wanted after the war is they wanted to stay as junior partners to the man that they still considered to be their patriotic wartime ally. But that patriotic wartime ally, Chiang Kai-shek, he wanted to fight and he was very confident that he was going to win. And he was confident for a number of reasons.
And one of these reasons was he had the backing of the US imperialists. They actually stepped in at the end of the war, and in a lot of parts of China, the U.S. imperialists were the ones who accepted Japanese surrender. And the reason for that was the KMT was so far from the front lines that they couldn’t make it in time to accept the surrender.
The US imperialists didn’t want the communists to accept the surrender, so they stepped in. They sent Marines to accept the surrender in a lot of places. And during the Civil War, the U.S. imperialists gave massive economic and military aid to the KMT. I was looking at some figures, and the best I can tell is that this aid totaled the equivalent in today’s money of about 70 to $75 billion.
And that only goes to show that the U.S. imperialists did not invent giving tens of billions of dollars to a hopeless cause in the Ukraine. They’ve been doing this for years. And the KMT, they had a seemingly large numerical advantage over the PLA. There were five KMT soldiers for every one of the PLA. But this advantage was largely illusory.
The fact of the matter is Chinese capitalism was in deep decay after the Second World War, and this was expressed inside the KMT’s armed forces. And so 30 to 40% of their soldiers actually only existed on paper. Because what would happen was an officer would claim that he had more troops under his command than he really did.
The Treasury would pay him enough to pay the wages of all the troops he claimed to have, and he’d pocket the difference. And if that wasn’t enough, the KMT army was one of the worst fed in modern history. And the reason for that wasn’t that they didn’t have rations. It’s that the officers would sell the food rations of their own troops on on the market to make money.
There are even cases where KMT officers sold American weapons to the PLA. Capitalism’s in decay. And if you’re an officer in a capitalist army that is in a capitalist state that is falling apart at the seams you’re not going to do your duty in an efficient and disciplined way.
You’re going to try to get out of it what you can. And the class dynamics inside those KMT forces played a decisive role. The KMT recruited in a very brutal fashion. Basically, they would move into a little peasant village, usually a very poor one, and they take all the all the young military age men and they would literally bind them together with ropes around their neck and they’d force march them to basic training.
I know there are comrades in the room who’ve been to basic training in this country, and they put you on like a nice coach bus over to basic training. But that’s not how the KMT did it. Right. And it wasn’t uncommon for 50% of the recruits to die or desert before they even reached the training base.
And the Chinese Communist Party were very adept at exploiting this. And what they did was they offered a plot of land to any KMT soldier who defected. And this was very attractive. The KMT soldiers were mainly poor peasants, and they’d wanted nothing more in life than a little plot of land. Now, there’s a kind of myth about the Chinese Communist Party in this period that they had this policy of “land to the tiller,” and whenever they moved into an area, they seized.
Seized all the land from the landlords and parceled it out among the peasants. And there were periods when they did this at the beginning of the first civil war in the late twenties. They actually did do that. And at the very end of the Chinese Civil War, they also did that. But in the middle, their land reforms tended to be quite moderate and quite limited.
And the reason was that they didn’t really want an all out fight with the landlords and they didn’t want an all out fight with the ruling classes. But in terms of the KMT soldiers, they got the policy right. By offering a plot of land, these KMT grunts came to the PLA in droves and by 1948 the numerical advantage had shifted decisively in favor of the Communist Party.
They moved from guerrilla tactics to positional warfare. The KMT had learned to retreat very well in the Second World War, and they put that to great use in the Civil War. They retreated. They gave up most cities without a fight. In addition to having the most desertions of any army in history, they were probably also the fastest retreating army in history.
Only Shanghai resisted. Once again, politically, it’s not a good look to give up Shanghai without a fight. Shanghai resisted a little bit, but not particularly well. And so finally, on October 1st, 1949, Mao declared that China was now a people’s Republic. Chiang Kai-Shek and his remaining KMT hangers-on fled to the island of Taiwan, where he continued to be a blood soaked, dictatorial capitalist bastard until his death in 1975.
And long before 1949, Trotsky predicted that the decisive question of the Chinese revolution would be settled when the the Communist Party’s army entered the cities. If the workers could organize themselves into Soviets, into workers councils, if they could use these workers councils to take political power firmly into their hands, they could build a healthy worker’s state and begin the socialist construction of society.
This new China would serve as a beacon for workers all over the world, and the Chinese revolution could have been a spark to ignite the world revolution. It was altogether possible. In parallel with the development of the Civil War, there was a huge development in the class struggle in China during the 1940s.
In 1936, there were only 278 strikes in all of China. By 1946, there were 1,716 strikes recorded in Shanghai alone, and in 1947 the number reached 2,538 in Shanghai alone. And alongside these workers struggles there had developed a very strong student movement, first against Japanese imperialism, and then it continued in the Civil War. But the radical workers and students in the cities in China who were moving into class struggle were absolutely disconnected from the CCP.
Whenever an urban communist got in touch with with the Communist Party, which was not that easy to do, they would be told: “You’ve got to come to the countryside and join the PLA.” Now, once the army reached the cities, instead of calling on the working class to overthrow the bourgeois state, Mao actually formed a coalition government with various little splinter groups that had split off from the KMT and really didn’t represent anything.
Far from encouraging the independent initiative of the working class masses, when the PLA entered cities and towns, they called on the workers not to strike, not to hold demonstrations and any manifestation of independent action was repressed. And there’s a very good reason for this. Even after their stunning victory over the decrepit Chinese capitalist state, the CCP leaders did not intend to go beyond the limits of capitalism.
Landlordism was through. They did carry out a sweeping land reform, but Mao’s perspective was that China would be a new democracy where the CCP would lead an alliance of the four classes while China passed through a century of capitalist development. And only then would it be ready for socialism. And this was just a recapitulation of the old Stalinist two stage theory, which itself was just a recapitulation of the old Menshevik line from the Russian Revolution.
But despite this perspective, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were only able to enjoy four years of new democracy. You see, the CCP never would have achieved victory except for the absolute rottenness and bankruptcy of Chinese capitalism and whether it fit with their Stalinist Maoist preconceptions or not, the only way forward for China at this time was to nationalize the main levers of the economy, to create a central plan to enforce a state monopoly over foreign trade. In short, the development of Chinese capitalism had reached a point where only a worker’s state could move society forward, and Mao and the Communist Party, they had to recognize this.
In 1953, Mao said the following: “Our present revolutionary struggle is even more profound than the revolutionary armed struggle of the past. It is a revolution that will bury the capitalist system and other systems of exploitation once and for all. Those who say ‘firmly establish the new democratic order,’ [i.e. those who say what Mao was saying four years ago and last year] those people go against the realities of our struggle and hinder the progress of the socialist cause.”
Quite an indictment of your own line from four years ago. But it wasn’t socialism as envisioned by Marx and Lenin, firmly based in the political power of the working class. The Communist Party built a worker’s state after the image of their political mentors in Stalin’s Soviet Union. And this was a result of the way the revolution was carried through by a peasant army.
Because if we if we understand that the peasants can’t lead themselves, they need to be led by the capitalists or the workers. And if they’re not led by the capitalists and they’re not led by the workers, well, there’s a vacuum and who fills it? Well, the Chinese bureaucracy, that’s who fills it. Nevertheless, the Chinese workers state transformed the country from a devastated and impoverished and oppressed basket case to a major world power.
The centrally planned, nationalized economy lifted millions of workers and peasants out of poverty. In 1949, China was 85% peasant, and today it has the largest working class in the world. But socialism needs democracy. It needs workers democracy like the body needs oxygen. For any deformed workers state, there are only two options. Either the working class finds some means to sweep aside the bureaucratic parasites or capitalism is restored.
And unfortunately, the latter happened in the Chinese case. But that’s not the end of the story. The final chapters of the Chinese Revolution remain to be written. The immense potential of the Chinese working class is far from exhausted, and anybody who doubts that should only look at the tremendous wave of strikes and mass demonstrations that happened at the end of last year and the beginning of this year.
In future generations, the Chinese revolution in 1949 is not going to be remembered as the second greatest event in world history. In the future. It will be remembered as the beginning of the end of the pre-history of Chinese civilization. And there can be absolutely no doubt, comrades, that under the leadership of a new communist international, which we in the IMT are building even today, the Chinese workers will play a central role in the coming world revolution, which will put an end to capitalism once and for all.
Thank you very much.